Climate change scientist Dr. Michael Mann is threatening legal action against the National Review magazine for a blog post that appeared in “The Corner” section of its online publication. In the article, journalist Mark Steyn quoted writer Rand Simberg’s observation that Dr. Mann “could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data…” Mr. Steyn went on to call Mann “the man behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus.”
In a demand letter to the National Review, Dr. Mann’s attorney, John Williams, contends that Mr. Steyn’s statements amount to accusations of academic fraud and constitute defamation per se. He argues that the statements were false and were made with the knowledge that they were false. He cites several inquiries into his research which concluded that he has not engaged in academic fraud as proof that Mr. Steyn’s statements are false. Dr. Mann demands that the National Review retract the article and apologize or face legal action.
Dr. Mann may have a valid complaint, but he is going to have his work cut out for him. Dr. Mann is a well-known, much published and often quoted figure in the climate change debate. In fact, Dr. Mann has written a book on the climate change controversy. Courts have held that scientists who inject themselves into public controversies over scientific and political debates are public figures. As a public figure, Dr. Mann would have to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the National Review published a provably false statement with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
His lawyers are also going to have to convince a judge that the use of the term “fraudulent,” in the context of the article, should be treated as an assertion of fact rather than subjective opinion. The court could plausibly rule either way on this issue. Mr. Steyn’s piece was commentary on a highly debatable topic – climate change – and a controversial graph – the “hockey stick” graph which depicts changes in the Earth’s temperature from the year 1000 onward. In an effort to encourage the free exchange of ideas, courts have allowed the press much leeway when writing about public controversies, and the difference of opinion over the science behind climate change is the type of debate that the First Amendment protects. Great scientific minds can reasonably disagree where the climate change debate is concerned.
While the court might indeed find that the term was used to suggest Dr. Mann engaged in academic fraud, it might conceivably find instead that the statement would more reasonably be interpreted as a protected expression of opinion. Moreover, if the court considers the “fraudulent” characterization to be rhetorical hyperbole, rather than an assertion of literal fact, it will dismiss the claim.
It is rarely easy for a public figure to prevail in a defamation case, especially when the statements at issue relate to matters of public concern. At a minimum, if Dr. Mann decides to file suit, it will at least bring more attention to the climate-change debate.